Tackle Warehouse 2014 ICAST Video Coverage 2014 ICAST Award Winners

Randall Tharp Wins BASS Central Open Ross Barnett Reservoir

Three years ago, Randall Tharp captured Angler of the Year honors in the Bassmaster Opens Southern Division. Back then, a Bassmaster Classic berth and an invitation to fish the Elite Series were among the perks that came with an Opens AOY title. He gladly accepted the spot in the 2011 Classic his first and only appearance in the event but he bypassed the Elite Series invite, opting to just fish the FLW Tour schedule, which at the time featured 10 tournaments (Majors and Opens) and the Forrest Wood Cup. Conflicting Tour and Elite schedules also were a factor in 2011. Much has changed at the top of the tournament pyramid since then. FLW has pared its Tour schedule down to six events and that prompted Tharp to enter 2013 with the goal of re-qualifying for the Elites in an effort to take another step in his career. His career took a giant leap forward this summer by winning the Cup at the Red River and claiming the $500,000 top prize. Last weekend, he capped off a gut-wrenching and emotional week in Mississippi with a wire-to-wire victory at the Ross Barnett Reservoir Bassmaster Central Open, securing another Classic berth and the coveted Elite Series invite. "It's one of the highest highs I've ever had in my entire career," he said. "I've won a lot of tournaments and to accomplish what I did, I really worked hard for it this year." The victory is one of the most meaningful of Tharp's career. Not only was it his third career Open win (his other two came in '08), he'll finally get to try his hand at competing on both circuits simultaneously next year. Tharp resided in Gardendale, Ala., up until earlier this year and has a strong track record at Guntersville he has several victories there, including an Open win so he'll have to be considered among the favorites in February at the Classic. "I wouldn't be where I am today without that lake," he said. "I won enough money there to move on and start fishing regionally and nationally. It's exciting and I miss it because I don't get to fish there any more. "I know every stump and ditch and everything about that lake. It's a grass lake and it changes. I'll definitely have to go do my scouting to see where the lake's at right now. I know some things about that lake and have caught fish ways at that time of year that nobody else knows about. I definitely think it'll give me an advantage. It's going be a big weight slugfest kind of tournament. I didn't really plan on this happening, but I'm excited about preparing for it."

He arrived at Ross Barnett in 2nd in Central Division points so his lone objective was to stay in the Top 5 and secure an Elite Series invite. Mission accomplished. "The thing I'm most excited about is getting to fish against Kevin (VanDam) and Skeet (Reese) and (Mike) Iaconelli and Jason (Christie)," he said. "I've competed against all of those guys a time or two. To get to go over there and show them what I can do is what I'm most excited about." He also wrapped up the Central Division points title after posting finishes of 4th (Red River), 18th (Arkansas River) and 1st (Ross Barnett). At Ross Barnett, a 33,000-acre impoundment on the Pearl River, he targeted isolated docks and some rip rap on the lower lake to put together a daily average of nearly 14 pounds to pace the field. His 41-15 total topped runner-up Stephen Browning by almost 4 pounds. Rather than hoist his winning fish out of the plentiful lily pads around the lake, he opted to flip jigs up under docks and around seawalls to capture the win.

Save for a half day about 20 years ago, Tharp had no experience at Ross Barnett prior to the tournament. "That was back before I even knew how to bass fish," he said, "but I knew it would be won shallow before I got there. I was confident I could put something together in the pads. I had frogs and swim jigs tied on and I was prepared to fish like I did at the Red River." After the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, he went right to Mississippi so he got a jump on breaking down the lake and more importantly what patterns were clicking. Initially, things were tougher than he expected. "The first day we were there I put the boat in up the river near where we were staying," he said. "It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen and I only had like two bites. I started thinking it was going to be a tough one. I knew it wasn't spoken of very highly, but it was worse than I'd imagined. The following day, he fished the lower lake toward the dam and by 9 a.m., had six bites under docks, a flurry that got his attention. "It's totally not what I planned on doing, but I pitched a jig under the first dock I went to and a big one just smoke it," he said. "I was like, 'There's something going on here.'" He spent the rest of that day and an entire other day on the lower end, refining the dock pattern. He estimates he had 40 bites the second day, just on docks. "I had several different things going on down there, but docks were 90 percent of what I did," he said. He also got bites on a small umbrella rig along riprap banks that under calm, sunny conditions and by the Saturday of the weekend before the tournament, he had decided the lower end was where he was going to focus his time during the tournament. "It was totally against what I thought and totally against what anybody would think I would do," he said. "There's a lot of green stuff in that lake and I did fish some in the tournament, but it was already after I had 16 pounds and I just killing time to make sure nothing else was going on in the area I was fishing."

Competiton:

The opening day of the tournament brought with it the best fishing conditions of the event, but there was also the lingering shock and sadness stemming from the shooting death of Opens angler Jimmy Johnson, who was gunned down in the parking lot of the Jackson, Miss., motel where he and his wife were staying the Sunday before the tournament. "It affected everybody at the tournament," Tharp said. "I didn't know Jimmy, but I had spoken to him in the bag line. He had a realistic chance to qualify for the Elites and accomplish something I'm sure he always wanted. It touched everybody that was there. He was there pursuing something he loved. It could've happened to anybody. It was just an unfortunate thing. Everybody feels for his family." Once the tournament was under way, Tharp didn't take long to start building momentum. His first keeper, a solid 3-pounder caught on a Z-Man ChatterBait, was stationed on an isolated boat ramp pier near the dam at the lower end of the lake. Then on the way to his second area, his motor cut out on him, but he was able to troll to where he wanted to be.

"It was probably an hour before the service guy got to me and by then, I had four fish and three were big ones," he said. "From that point on, it was the jig. It was totally unexpected the way it all went down." Most of his day-1 fish were plucked out of the u-shaped cutouts "cubby holes" as he called them in metal seawalls in 2 to 3 feet of water, which was the key depth all weekend. By noon, he had the weight he brought to the scale. He did fish some pads and "experimented around because I didn't want to beat anything else up for the rest of the week," he added. "It was a good day. I didn't lose any or miss any fish." His 16-pound bag put him out front by 4 ounces, ahead of Brian Potter. He caught 15 keepers each of the first 2 days, but he noted the feeding period was moving later in the day. On the second day, he finished his limit at noon and caught a key upgrade on an umbrella rig. His 13-04 effort kept him in the lead entering the final day when the bite toughened across the board. Despite Browning bringing in the tournament's heaviest bag (16-14), only half of the 12 finalists hauled limits to the stage. It was tough on Tharp as well. He wrangled six keepers into the boat on the final day, but the best five weighed 12-11 and secured the victory for him.

Winning Pattern:

The extra time Tharp put in on the lower end allowed him to pinpoint where the better fish were holed up. "It was obvious that it was a certain type of dock in a certain place on the lake," he said. "I marked every one I could. I think I had 50-something waypoints, but when the tournament began, I probably hit between 100 and 150 a day. It was basically pull up and make 10 flips and then go to the next one. There's a lot no-wake buoys there and the long stretches with 10 docks were getting some pressure, but the ones that were off by themselves or you had to a long idle to get to them, nobody would do it. That ended up being the key. The isolated docks are where I caught the biggest fish. "Most of the fish were pretty far back up under stuff. They weren't on the outside poles either. They were all up under, in the thickest stuff. If there were four poles together back in there the hardest to get to that's where they'd be. I had to make long, really accurate pitches. It made for some pretty exciting fishing. When one gets it way up under there and he's throwing water all over the pier and you're pulling him over cables, it's pretty awesome. It's the way I love to fish." He figured out the rig pattern after he'd locked down the dock strategy in practice. "There was so much bait there, I knew there had to be fish there," he said. "I hate throwing that thing and hate everything about it, but I knew it was the time of year and the water was clear enough for it to work. I rigged one up and went to the dam. Every time I saw a ball of shad, I caught a 3-pounder. I told somebody I thought I could win it on that stupid thing. That bite kind of went away because the conditions never aligned for that. On the final day, there was a small window when it got calm and sunny. I ran over there and on the first cast, I caught a 3-pounder. It definitely paid off."

Winning Gear:

Jig gear: 7'6" heavy-action Halo Daylite casting rod, Shimano Chronarch 100 casting reel, 20-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. 4x4 Bass Jigs Randall Tharp Signature Series jig (golden craw), Zoom Big Salty Chunk trailer (green-pumpkin). Sticking with the jig was a big key in Tharp's mind. "There was quite a bit of pressure around the area and everybody was throwing moving baits or flipping little finesse worms," he said. "I just had an old school flipping jig."

Umbrella rig gear: 7'6" heavy-action Halo Twilite casting rod, same reel, same line, YUM Flash Mob Jr. umbrella rig, 1/8-oz. jig heads, 2.8" and 3.8" Keitech Swing Impact FAT swimbaits (electric shad). He hung the smaller swimbaits on the outside hooks and the longer one on the middle wire. All of the fish he caught on the rig came on the middle wire.

Main Factor: It was a high speed, run-and-gun thing. There were key places and I didn't waste a lot of time fishing random stuff. I fished key places the entire week. It was the same thing at the Cup and when I won at Okeechobee I never went to what I felt were the best places until I felt like the fish were biting. If there was one key to me winning, it was the timing of when I went to those key places."

Performance Edge: "I feel like I have the best jig and the best rod. The boat and motor were great. My Power-Poles were key again as far as stopping me on the docks when I needed it."

Ross Barnett Reservoir Winning Pattern Bassfan 10/23/13 (Todd Ceisner)